Why the FBI Director Can't Serve More Than 10 Years

Here's a Hint: J. Edgar Hoover Held the Post for 48 Years Before Dying in Office

J. Edgar Hoover
J. Edgar Hoover served 48 years as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation before dying in office. Getty Images/Archives

FBI directors are limited to serving no more than 10 years in the position unless granted a special exception by the president and Congress. The 10-year term limit for the Federal Bureau of Investigations chief executive has been in place since 1973.

Why FBI Directors Can't Service More Than 10 Years

The term limit for FBI directors was put into place following the J. Edgar Hoover's 48 years in the position. Hoover died in office, and afterward, it became clear that he had abused the power he amassed over the course of nearly five decades.

As The Washington Post put it:

"... 48 years of power concentrated in one person is a recipe for abuse. It was mostly after his death that Hoover’s dark side became common knowledge — the covert black-bag jobs, the warrantless surveillance of civil rights leaders and Vietnam-era peace activists, the use of secret files to bully government officials, the snooping on movie stars and senators, and the rest. Hoover’s name, carved in stone at the FBI headquarters on Pennsyl­vania Avenue, should serve as a caution to the public and the dedicated professionals who work inside. The FBI’s license to intrude into people’s lives gives it a special public trust. If the daily reminder of Hoover’s excesses can help impart that message, it will be the best safeguard for the positive side of his legacy: a modern, professional, science-based and accountable detective force serving the public interest."

How FBI Directors Get Into Office

FBI directors are nominated by the president of the United States and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

What the Term Limit Law Says

The 10-year limit was one provision in the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968. The FBI itself acknowledges that the law was passed "in reaction to the extraordinary 48-year term of J. Edgar Hoover." 

Congress passed the law on Oct. 15, 1976, in an attempt to "safeguard against improper political influence and abuses," as Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley once stated.

It reads, in part:

"Effective with respect to an individual appointment by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, after June 1, 1973, the term of service of the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation shall be ten years. A Director may not serve more than one ten-year term."

Exceptions

There are exceptions to the rule. FBI director Robert Mueller, appointed to the post by President George W. Bush just before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, served 12 years in the post. President Barack Obama sought a two-year extension to Mueller's term given the nation's heightened concern about another attack.

"It wasn’t a request I made lightly, and I know Congress didn’t grant it lightly. But at a time when transitions were underway at the CIA and the Pentagon and given the threats facing our nation, we felt it was critical to have Bob’s steady hand and strong leadership at the bureau," Obama said.